Two high-ranking German officials have called on the United States to work together with Europe in response to China, ahead of the US election next week.
The push for a united front on China from the German defence and foreign ministers comes after the launch of a new US-Europe forum to discuss China-related issues, with the first talks to be held next month. It was announced following a phone call between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his EU counterpart Josep Borrell on Friday.
European officials have long complained about Beijing’s lack of progress on opening up the Chinese economy to foreign players, and more recently about the human rights situation in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, including during a virtual summit with President Xi Jinping in September.
But Germany has been reluctant to get too close to the US, especially since Donald Trump became president in 2016. Trump has repeatedly berated Berlin for not paying enough into the Nato coffers, and the EU as a whole for competing against the US.
Calling herself an “Atlanticist”, however, German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer on Saturday suggested building a “newly strengthened Western trade alliance” in response to Chinese practices.
“German interests – and those of Europe – need an order that can counter both dangers to liberal trade: the aggressively directed state capitalism of China and the temptation for unilateral isolation and decoupling that we are currently observing in Washington,” she said.
“I therefore suggest that we take on the challenge of global competition from a newly strengthened Western trade alliance,” she said, adding that it would not be a “crazy idea” for the EU and the US to eliminate all tariffs and trade barriers between them.
“As a leading export nation, we Germans see with great concern how China has positioned itself on international trade issues,” said Kramp-Karrenbauer, the outgoing chairwoman of the ruling Christian Democratic Union.
She said those concerns included China’s long-standing currency manipulation, aggressive appropriation of intellectual property, unequal investment conditions, and the state-subsidised distortion of competition.
Mikko Huotari, head of the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a Berlin-based think tank, said the overall tone on China had turned “very critical in Germany, especially during the last 12 months”.
“I would expect the post-[Angela] Merkel China policy, irrespective of who will succeed her, to offer a more critical perspective on China,” Huotari said.
Chancellor Merkel will not run for a fifth term in next year’s election, while Kramp-Karrenbauer, once seen as her possible successor, is set to step down from the CDU leadership in December.
A day after her remarks, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the future of transatlantic relations would be “determined by the right way of dealing with China”.
“Washington sees the great strategic challenge of this century in the rise of China, across all party lines. The next US administration will therefore also redirect political and military capital there,” Maas wrote in the Welt am Sonntag newspaper.
“Some may see this as an automatic weakening of the transatlantic relationship. For me, on the other hand, the shaping of our relations with China holds the opportunity for new transatlantic cooperation – because Americans and Europeans share an interest in open societies, human rights and democratic standards, fair trade, free sea routes and the security of our data and our intellectual property,” he wrote.
“If we want to get China to adhere to such international standards, then the US can also benefit from the EU’s role as Beijing’s largest trading partner. And if we speak with one voice in the World Trade Organization instead of imposing tariffs on each other, then we can also set new standards there, for example with regard to forced technology transfers or the dealings with state-owned companies.”
Maas also said the split between the US and the EU caused by Trump’s presidency benefited only outside powers.
“After four difficult years, it is time for a fresh start in the transatlantic partnership, because the beneficiaries of our differences are in Beijing and Moscow, in Tehran and Pyongyang.”